Iraqi Forces Show Signs Of Progress In Offensive

Iraqi soldiers guide suspected insurgents after house-to-house searches in the Qadisiyah area of Tall Afar, where the joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive began Sept. 2.
Iraqi soldiers guide suspected insurgents after house-to-house searches in the Qadisiyah area of Tall Afar, where the joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive began Sept. 2. (By Akram Saleh -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 22, 2005

TALL AFAR, Iraq -- The Iraqi soldiers had already searched the house, according to a sticker plastered across its front gate.

But when their commanding general and a U.S. colonel arrived one afternoon last week to praise their performance and observe them in action, the troops wanted to give a demonstration. With theatrical intensity, they charged the two-story structure on the nearly deserted block, rifles at the ready, while other soldiers and two reporters watched from the street.

A fiery explosion -- some soldiers said they saw a man throw a grenade, others said the door was rigged to blow -- erupted from inside, followed by bursts of gunfire. The shouting soldiers stumbled out through a cloud of smoke, covered in blood. The rest of the platoon, which had lost a lieutenant in a grenade attack the day before, appeared dejected, some huddling around the wounded, others sitting with their heads in their hands.

What happened next, commanders here said, suggested significant progress toward the goal of shifting security functions to Iraqi forces so that the United States can begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. When the clashes grew intense, the Iraqi soldiers did not shrink, American officers said.

"Okay, men, it's time to buck up and show our mettle," said a U.S. Special Forces soldier, acting as platoon commander, who allowed reporters to accompany the patrol on the condition that he not be named. "We can't let this stop us. We need payback!"

They went looking for revenge. When they were ambushed again, in a home one block away, they were ready. After a firefight, they came out smiling proudly, with several raising two fingers to indicate the number of insurgents killed.

"A couple of months ago, they might not have been able to pull it together after something like that," said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who witnessed the abortive raid and helped bandage an Iraqi soldier whose wounded hand was pouring blood onto the sidewalk. "They showed a lot of resolve. Eventually, they will be able to control this city."

The Tall Afar offensive, which began Sept. 2, is the largest urban military operation in Iraq since November's siege of Fallujah. Unlike many previous joint offensives, however, it is the Iraqi army that has the majority of the soldiers on the ground -- 5,000 of the roughly 8,500 troops involved -- that does the most intense fighting and that pays the heaviest price. At least nine Iraqi soldiers have been killed during the operation, compared with one American.

"We were not afraid. We are here to protect our country," said Pvt. Tarek Hazem, 28, of Baghdad, his hands and uniform still red with the blood of men he helped treat when the building exploded. "All we feel is motivated to kill terrorists."

Tall Afar's Sunni Muslim majority and its strategic location on a main insurgent smuggling route, 40 miles from Iraq's border with Syria, make the operation here an important test case for the transition of security duties to Iraqis, commanders said. "If we can get things under control and begin handing off responsibilities here, we can do it anywhere," McMaster said. "It won't happen overnight, but progress is being made."

But while it has provided evidence that the capabilities of Iraq's security forces are improving, the operation in Tall Afar has also laid bare the challenges they face as their role in fighting the insurgency expands.

Because the ranks of the Iraqi police force and army are filled mostly with Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds, they are perceived in many of the country's Sunni sections not as national forces but as factional hit squads bent on persecution. The ethnic tensions were evident in Tall Afar, a city of just over 200,000 predominated by Sunni Turkmens.

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